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Can’t Buy A Thrill

turn-the-page-2

Can’t Buy A Thrill: The Book Reviewer’s Slump – An article for Turn The Page, an occasional column about book reviewing.

1.  Happy and Hungover

Book reviewers are often faced with an embarrassment of riches.   They may receive hundreds of books in a short period of time, either directly from publishers or indirectly via book review publications.   This may translate into becoming less excited over the less publicized new releases.   I’m reminded of when I managed a college radio station’s music library…  The record companies sent us records every day, usually multiple copies of each release.   The longer this went on, the more we felt the temptation for the DJs to spend their time listening to the big, mega-releases like the latest from the Rolling Stones or Steve Winwood.   It was hard to pull away to listen to a new album recorded by a promising, virtually unknown and self-proclaimed bar band from San Jose.   (They went on to become wildly successful as The Doobie Brothers.)

It can be like that for the book reviewer.   At first, he or she will jump at reading and reviewing anything that’s sent.   Then the reviewer will find that he becomes pickier as time goes by.   It may be especially hard to read a debut novel by an unknown author when so many releases by major authors – from the major publishers – are whispering, “Read me!” in his ear.   This is but one of the issues that will arise.

you came back

Another issue occurs after reading an almost perfect book.   I had this experience recently after finishing the novel You Came Back by Christopher Coake.   I went to my stack of “to be read” books and, no matter how hard I tried to read each of them, they simply felt flat by comparison.   Moreover, I felt as if I could see the stitches in the tales when comparing them in my mind to Coake’s virtually seamless story telling.   I finally came to realize that Coake’s book – labeled a ghost story – is about what sudden loss does to human beings.   I then searched for a book with a somewhat similar theme and found it in the novel Gone by Cathi Hanauer, a story about a writer-mother-housewife whose husband leaves with the young, sexy babysitter and doesn’t return.   Gone and You Came Back are nearly mirror images of each other.   In music, it was like when the Beatles released Let It Be and the Rolling Stones released Let It Bleed.

Gone cover

After reading these two somewhat similar tales, I felt free to experiment with something completely different, which turned out to be an historical novel; fiction based upon a little bit of fact.   But sometimes shaking the grip a great book has on you – a type of literary hangover – takes days to be loosened.   For the book reviewer, this may mean not following through on a commitment that was made earlier; or delaying meeting the commitment.   But that’s the way life is.   As John Lennon was to so wisely state, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

2.  Comparing A to B

Above, I’ve compared two novels to each other, and this leads me to wondering whether a publishing house or publicist should do the same.   It seems like a potentially risky business.   If the book jacket promises that, “Anyone who loved Milo’s Story will adore spending time with Fluffy’s Tail!” there’s the risk of making the reader who truly loved the former, but doesn’t like the latter – such as a dog lover who can’t abide cats – extremely angry.   I think these types of comparisons have more of a downside than an upside.

A better strategy, in my view, and one that draws me in, is to post a blurb by a respected author who writes in the same genre as the new, relatively unknown author.   I may be quite unsure that I want to spend time reading a book by Bill Unknown, but if there’s a front jacket blurb by David Major (you know, the one whose book was made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway) stating, “Bill’s a truly great find!   Trust me, you must read this!” I’m likely to take the chance.   That’s because David Major has little to gain and a lot to lose by letting his name be used in a less than forthright way.   Let’s just hope that I haven’t received the galley of Unknown’s forthcoming book right after I’ve finished reading You Came Back.

Joseph Arellano

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Turn The Page

An occasional column about book reviewing.

I.  Against the Wind

“What to leave in, what to leave out…”   Bob Seger

One thing that all book reviewers have in common is that they do a lot of typing.   These days, this means that the prime tool of the trade is not a portable Smith-Corona typewriter or an IBM Selectric but instead a computer – generally a PC Windows-based laptop or an Apple MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.   In order to find the best of these writing tools, reviewers like me can spend many hours – sometimes an inordinate amount of time, reading laptop/notebook reviews.

Something that has been surprising to me is how much space in modern computer reviews is devoted to discussing what is largely irrelevant.   For example, we’re often told that a particular computer screen is fine for most purposes but that the images on it quickly fade when the screen is moved 45 or more degrees – as if one might close it while still typing.   Frankly, I never  move the screen while I’m using my machine – I sit straight in front of it and never move either the screen or my body.   Which brings us to the next so-called “issue” covered in the majority of these reviews – we’re told that the monitor images tend to detiorate if you’re sitting three or four feet to the left or right of the screen.   Really?   Who types while sitting a bench-length away from the screen?

Some of the reviewer’s comments are so silly that I wonder where on earth they’re going to end.   I fully suspect one day soon I’ll read that a particular computer monitor does not offer good images when the machine is turned off; or when one stands to the back of the screen.   Clearly, this is true of 100 percent of television screens but no one would be crazy enough to call it to our attention.

What relevance does this have to the book reviewer?   Well, it brought home to me that fact that it’s key to leave in what’s important, while leaving out facts that the average reader would find to be irrelevant.   Let’s say, for example, that I’m reading a book – a family novel – in which the female protagonist lives in Denver, Colorado.   It might be relevant if I note that the protagonist’s brother is unlikable as he’s a violent womanizer and a drug abuser.   It’s likely not so relevant if I write that I didn’t like his character because he’s portrayed as being a fan of the Denver Broncos…  Yes, all information is not equally valuable.

Something else about computer reviews is that the reviewer often hedges his or her bets with some cheap disclaimer.   Instead of recommending or not recommending a machine, their review might go like this:  “The Emerson 15.6″ AMD dual-core laptop comes with a horribly glossy display, has an awful keyboard, a terrible trackpad, a battery that dies within 90 minutes, and is cheaply built.   But, if you’re looking for the most economical thing on the market that you can use to surf the web and send e-mails, it may be just the thing for you!”   The manufacturer, of course, will quote the last 7 words of the review, hoping that the prospective buyer doesn’t look up the full review.

Again, I think there’s a lesson to be learned here for book reviewers, which is to be true throughout the review.   Don’t take a position and then run from it with a potentially face-saving “out”.   Provide an opinion and stick with it – do the prospective reader-purchaser a favor by sticking with an honest opinion.   Do not hide your recommendation in the weeds.

II.  A New Issue

One new issue that’s popped up for me is that I’ll receive a book – actually an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) – weeks or months before it’s released and begin to read it.   I’ll then communicate with the author’s or publisher’s publicist and ask if I may post a review when I finish reading it.   Often the response is that they want me to hold off on posting the review until the release date or very close to it.   So I’ll close the book and, unfortunately, often never get back to it.   It becomes a lost book, an absent review because I could not write about it when I was ready.

I would love for some of these publicists and/or publishers to consider changing their stances.   Whatever happened to the view that some publicity is better than none?   And, confusingly, some publishers take the opposite stance – that all of the “buzz” about a book should come prior to the release date:  “If a book is not being talked about before its release date, it will most likely be dead on arrival.”

It’s a confusing world out there, including for the lowly book reviewer.   LOL

Joseph Arellano

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